A magnificent mausoleum, commissioned by Shah Jahan as a monument for his most loved wife, Mumtaz Mahal, designed by the architect Ustad Isa, formed by the hands of 20,000 men, the Taj Mahal was built behind an encircling wall for sixteen years, intended to be unveiled at day’s first light, revealing a pure and complete glory that could be experienced just once before, like us and everything, it began to decay. Rajiv Joseph’s Guards at the Taj does not show the edifice or its builders to us, instead allowing the dome, the minarets, the gardens, the marble, turquoise, jade, and lapis lazuli to be seen through the eyes of the two lowliest guards tasked to defend it. Friends since boyhood, Humayun (Omar Metwally) and Babur (Arian Moayed) are mediocre guards because they see and hear too much: the redbreasted jibjab singing before the sun rises; that blasphemy gets three days in jail but sedition death by elephant; that the Taj Mahal, the most beautiful thing ever made, contains as much suffering as beauty.
Joseph’s work, directed by Amy Morton, is a piercing examination of the nature of beauty, its relationship to power, and its unspeakable costs. Though pawns of a dictatorship that does not acknowledge their existence other than as subjects and agents of oppression, ambitious Humayun and imaginative Babur, sensitively rendered by Metwally and Moayed, are profoundly alive in dialogues that roam across visions and inventions, horror and pain. Beauty and violence coexist in the same minds, in the same unfortunate world. v